In Honour of the 92nd Anniversary of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Death Yesterday Three Marvellous Rilkean Knockoffs by Vuong, Oliver and Hayes

German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1975-1926)

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), trans. Stephen Mitchell from Ahead of All Parting: Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, Modern Library, 1995

Yesterday was the 92nd anniversary of the death of the legendary German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. But these many years later his poetry remains potent with an aliveness that belies the years that have passed since his death.

A great example of how alive Rilke remains through his poetry today is the number of poets who have been inspired by particular poems of his and used them to trigger their own poetic responses. And one of the most famous examples of such a poem is the one above. A poem made famous by its last sentence: You must change your life.

The danger of such a line, so well known, is that can feel hackneyed and over known. Its potency lost. The American poet Heather McHugh indirectly addresses this danger when she defines poetry as finding the unexpected in the over known. This is especially the case when trying to write a poem influenced by this one of Rilke’s. How to find the unexpected when using such well known lines as: You must change your life.

Here now in honour of Rilke and the anniversary of his death yesterday are three poems by celebrated poets who take on the challenge of Rilke’s line: the Vietnamese American Ocean Vuong, the American poet Mary Oliver and the American poet Terrance Hayes. I hope you agree with me that they take these lines and reinvent them in a fresh and startling way.

Torso of Air

Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than

a portion of night — sealed
with bruises. Suppose you woke

& found your shadow replaced
by a black wolf. The boy, beautiful

& gone. So you take the knife to the wall
instead. You carve & carve

until a coin of light appears
& you get to look in, at last,

on happiness. The eye
staring back from the other side —


Ocean Vuong from Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Copper Canyon Press, 2016

How I am surprised by Vuong! How he throws me into the mystery of a changed life. A life now more than /a portion of night – sealed/ with bruises. Such leaps and surprises and then the shock of the eye of happiness staring back at the narrator through a hole in the wall. Old line – hugely different and original poem.

The Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

Mary Oliver

And too, the surprise of this poem by one of America’s most popular poets, Mary Oliver. How she gives such added torque to this poem with her insistent questions. Five beginning with: Did you see …? And two with: And have you…? How Oliver is demanding in this poem a changed attention. An attention that makes her best poems like this one so alive and immediate. Vibrating with urgency. And the way she makes her variation of Rilke’s line pulse with renewed energy. For me an even more plangent cry. Not Rilke’s: You must change your life but, even more charged, this question: And have you changed your life? Ouch!


Rilke ends his sonnet, “Archaic Torso Of Apollo” saying
“You must change your life.” James Wright ends “Lying
In A Hammock At William Duffy’s Farm In Pine Island,
Minnesota” saying “I have wasted my life.” Ruth Stone ends
“A Moment” Saying “You do not want to repeat my life.”
A minute seed with a giant soul kicking inside it at the end
And beginning of life. After the opening scene where
A car bomb destroys the black detective’s family, there are
Several scenes of our hero at the edge of life. A shootout
In an African American Folk Museum, a shootout
In the middle of an interstate rest stop parking lot, a shootout
In a barn endangering the farm life. The life
That burns a hole through life, that leaves a scar for life,
That makes you weep for another life. Define life.

Terrance Hayes from American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Penguin Books, 2018

Hayes has lit the American poetry scene on fire in recent years with his trademark ferocious and fearless voice. He is one of the many African American voices today redefining and re-energizing American poetry. This poem of his is from his 2018 poetry collection which was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award.

Hayes takes the Rilke line and other notable lines from James Wright and Ruth Stone and turns them on their heads. Now the poem isn’t about changing, wasting or repeating a life. It is about life and death.

This poem bewilders my expectations for sure when suddenly I am inside a tragic American action film! And suddenly life, such a huge abstraction, is being wept for. A specific life. Suddenly it’s all much more personal. Much more at stake. And then the clincher: Define life.

Three wonderful and unexpected takes on Rilke’s famous lines. Three original re-inventions. Three wonderful tributes to Rilke and one of his most-loved poems!

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